Cale’s cinema corner: “Infinity Pool” review

Cale Strickland, Managing Editor

In January 2020, Brandon Cronenberg shocked audiences at the Sundance Film Festival with his sophomore feature film, “Possessor.” He delivered a genre-bending mashup, merging the high-concept sci-fi popularized through the works of Christopher Nolan and the cringe-inducing body horror mastered by Cronenberg’s father, the great David Cronenberg.

During the pandemic, Cronenberg’s breakout project became one of the first cult classics of the 2020s, as a new, unedited version of the film, “Possessor: Uncut,” debuted on streaming in December 2020, doubling down on the gruesome gore contained in the film’s R-rated cut.

Fast-forward to 2023, and Cronenberg is back at the film festival which jump-started his filmmaking career debuting “Infinity Pool,” a follow-up feature bigger, broader — and gnarlier — than its predecessor. Just in case the theatrical cut is not enough, Cronenerg has teased the future release of an NC-17 cut of the film.

His latest film follows struggling novelist James Foster, played by Alexander Skarsgård, as he embarks on a luxurious resort vacation in the fictional nation of Latoka with his wife, Em Foster, played by Cleopatra Coleman. He has come to the island in search of inspiration, as he is suffering from a long-winded bout of writer’s block. It has been six years since the publication of his one and only novel. He and Em’s lifestyles, including the vacation intended to save his writing career, are being bankrolled by Em’s father, who owns a large publishing house.

When James runs into superfan Gabi Bauer, played by Mia Goth, on the beach in-between rounds of margaritas and performances from local bands, he can not believe someone recognizes him, let alone enjoys his work. He is, seemingly, instantly relieved of his years-long melancholy, and Gabi’s flattery is enough to convince him to join her and her husband, Alban Bauer, played by Jalil Lespert, for dinner.

The following morning, the pair of couples meet up for a daytrip. After a close friend of Gabi and Alban lends the group his car, the resort’s regulars take their new friends to a caveside beach for a picnic. As afternoon turns to evening, Alban finds himself drunk and asks James to drive them home. As he maneuvers the winding roads covering Latoka’s forest-filled cliffs, the car’s headlights begin to malfunction, dimming and brightening at random. James, panicking, looks to his passengers for help, but each has drifted off to sleep in an alcohol-induced stupor. After split seconds of driving in complete darkness, the car’s headlights return, highlighting a man crossing the road. Unable to steer clear of the coming crash, James hits a local at full speed, sending him onto the route’s shoulder and the tourists into shock.

Once the victim is declared dead, Gabi and Alban insist that the couples flee the scene rather than call the authorities, as the country’s justice system is corrupt and built on the concept of “an eye for an eye.” Regardless of the group’s attempt to evade the consequences of the crime, Latokan officials detain James the following morning. After interrogating James, the officers inform him that, in order to avenge his father’s death, the victim’s eldest son is to execute James. However, for a high price, James can undergo a duplication process and have a double be executed in his place. Yet, there is a catch. He must bear witness to his double, who looks identical to him and shares all of his memories, being executed. James, of course, agrees. After he is dressed in a medical gown and placed in a vat of what appears to be human blood, James experiences a series of vivid hallucinations before falling unconscious. The following morning, Em informs James of the duplication process’s success as she helps him out of bed and into the execution room.

As the 13-year-old boy repeatedly stabs James’s defenseless double in the stomach, Em shields herself from the gruesome violence unfolding in front of her. James, on the other hand, appears emotionless. Cronenberg frames James’s face in a closeup shot, closing the film’s first act as the protagonist’s expression shifts from indifference to a slow, maniacal grin.

James, no longer bound by the rules of morality, begins to question his own desires and follows Gabi on a psychedelic journey into the darkest depths of humanity.

Cronenberg’s film is filled to the brim with ideas regarding the connections between tourism, the gentrification of underdeveloped countries and the erasure of said countries’ cultures. Throughout the film, locals’ faces are never shown, although tourists can remember the people of Latoka by purchasing disfigured, macabre masks worn by the resort’s employees. For undisclosed reasons, the resort’s guests are not allowed to leave the compound, and a series of drone shots reveals droves of abandoned, rusted cars littering the area’s roads. In an effort of financial self-sustenance, the state has rewritten its rules of justice to bend to the depraved will of its patrons. Latoka’s lifeblood is just that: blood.

Yet, the true terror of Cronenberg’s latest work lies not in the heinous acts James, Gabi and the other tourists engage in throughout the film’s second half, but the ease with which James finds himself slipping into the underground world of consequenceless crime. Although it is reassuring to distance ourselves, common people, from Gabi, Alban and the rest of the film’s rich entourage, pointing out the privilege that allows these people to operate does not discard the ever-present impulse for darkness which infects each frame of Cronenberg’s two-hour nightmare. James is an outsider to the world of fame and fortune. He married into wealth. He comes from humble beginnings, but when no one is watching, when there is nothing to lose, he is complacent in the face of sadism. Just as an infinity pool’s sense of boundless, edgeless immersion is nothing more than an optical illusion, James’s newfound admiration for the primal nature of hedonism and violence is nothing more than a coping mechanism blinding him from his parasitic connection to the land and people of Latoka.